Last weekend marked the 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards, an event which recognises and celebrates diverse and inclusive representation of the LGBTQ community in film and television. Oscar winner Moonlight bagged another award for Outstanding Film (Wide Release), with Transparent, Shadowhunters and Black Mirror also receiving honours at the awards for their queer characters. Whilst representation is improving, especially on TV, every fully-rounded, interesting, living, out LGBT character makes a massive impact in shaping the media landscape, which in turn paves the way for acceptance and normalisation within society. I’ve written before about the importance of representation, and about some of the best media out there that’s doing a great job currently.
But the GLAAD awards wasn’t the only notable news buzzing in the queer media scene this past week. British institution and BBC flagship show Doctor Who revealed that the new companion, Bill Potts (played by Pearl Mackie) is gay. This is big, exciting news for multiple reasons, but let’s break down why.
1. Bill Will Be The First Openly Queer Full-Time Companion
Doctor Who, which you may know as that funny little sci-fi show with the time travelling police call box and the pepper-pot Dalek villains, is a surprisingly diverse show. It has Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the omnisexual 51st century Time Agent, married Victorian wives Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint, gender-fluid Timelords such as the Master and the General, in addition to a varied range of alien cultures and attitudes. Russell T Davies, who brought the show back in 2005, is an openly gay man, who also brought a range of orientations to characters in spin offs such as Torchwood. It can always strive to do better however. It has in recent years implied some characters are bisexual merely for the benefit of the punchline of a joke, which is demeaning and dismissive of these identities, especially when they also give the same characters heterosexual love interests that have greater narrative weight.
Whereas there have been significant queer characters that have played an important role in the series, or key protagonists that are implied to be LGBTQ, Bill Potts (to be introduced in the first episode of Season 10, airing 15th April 2017 in the UK) will be the first of the Doctor’s full-time, human female companions to be openly gay. This is massive, as the companion is traditionally the ‘audience substitute’, the character that we’re most aligned with who will introduce us to the world through their eyes. This gives us a greater emotive connection to the character, and they are often seen as needing to be relatable. The fact that Bill isn’t seen as being the ‘other’, but as someone we can position ourselves with, is radical.
2. Bill Is The First Queer Woman Of Colour To Have A Significant Role In The Show
There is a lot of debate as to what qualifies a character to be classed as a companion of the Doctor, meaning there’s no definitive count of how many companions our favourite Timelord has had. What is known is that within the rough estimate of 50+ companions over 54 years, Bill Potts will be the second ever woman of colour to be a canon live-action companion (with Freema Agyeman’s Doctor Martha Jones being the first, travelling with David Tennant’s Doctor). To have her the first out lesbian as well places the character at an intersection of seriously underrepresented demographics, making this a brave and exciting choice by the showrunners. It shouldn’t be such a shocking thing to include a character who embodies the experience of what is likely to be a good proportion of its fanbase, but the sparsity of characters of these intersecting identities on TV as a whole, let alone on a massive BBC family show like Doctor Who, speaks volumes. As actress Pearl Mackie put it, “I remember watching TV as a young mixed race girl not seeing many people who looked like me, so I think being able to visually recognise yourself on screen is important”.
3. A Queer Black Female Character Will Be A Co-Lead In A Prime-Time Family Drama Broadcast World-Wide
This is basically unprecedented territory. This is a show that has attracted up to 10 million viewers in the UK alone, and has been broadcast in 94 countries. Aside from post-watershed content such as How To Get Away With Murder and Orange Is The New Black, or coded cartoon characters such as Garnet from Steven Universe, this is a demographic rarely seen on mainstream shows that target that elusive all-ages audience, meaning that children as young as six, their great great grannies and everyone in between will be regularly exposed to Bill. She will become a familiar face, and more than that; a hero to aspire to, someone to dress up and play at being. We know regularly seeing and feeling we ‘know’ characters opens up minds and hearts to people of identities we otherwise might not acknowledge, and who knows the conversations, the familiarity and the realisations having a character like this in homes every Saturday night might bring. I grew up watching Captain Jack kissing and flirting with men, and in doing so, it became no more taboo than watching heterosexual couples kiss on TV. This kind of positive exposure can literally transform lives, and make more homes a safe place for embracing queerness. The more we show children how vast and diverse normality can look, the greater service we do for everyone as we break away from the same tired, limited narratives. Doctor Who said it best: ‘When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… Grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.’ May the Doctor and Bill continue to shine a light on how strange and wonderful all our lives can be, regardless of who we are.
Words by Heidi Teague